I grew up in Guelatao de Juárez, a village of approximately 500 people in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte. Guelatao is famous not only as the birthplace of Mexican president Benito Juárez, but also as the site of the annual Copa Benito Juárez, in which more than 200 teams of Indigenous Zapotec, Mixe, and Chinantec players compete over a period of three days.
Unlike in wider mestizo Mexico, where soccer reigns supreme, in the Sierra, basketball is king. The sport was introduced in the 1930s by president Lazaro Cardenas as a way to bring Oaxaca’s disparate and historically rebellious Indigenous groups into the national fold. Cardenas’ dream of a unified national identity didn’t take root in the Sierra — historically isolated and impoverished — but basketball soon became tied to the region’s most significant traditions, and to Indigenous identity itself.
Like many of my fellow villagers, I grew up idolizing the star players from my village and others. I saved up money for basketball shoes, and spent most of my spare time on the basketball court which, as one of the few flat spaces in hilly and terraced Serrano villages, served not only as a site of play but also as a public gathering space.
My documentary photography project explores the way in which basketball reinforces Indigenous identity. Basketball tournaments in Oaxaca are the central fixture of the annual village fiesta — the single most important event in a Serrano village. In the past, migrants would return from the United States for tournaments in their villages. Now, with changes in U.S. border policy, they simply send money for trophies, slaughtered bulls, fireworks, uniforms, shoes, and prizes. During the fiesta, the basketball court is the fulcrum of activity: bulls are slaughtered there, bands play in massive group concerts, dances are held, and the names of the migrants sponsoring the fiesta are read aloud.
Born in Guelatao de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico, Jorge Santiago is a documentary photographer currently based in Pittsburgh. His work has been exhibited in Mexico City, Los Angeles, Madrid, Havana, and Bratislava. He has taught workshops in basic, pinhole, and darkroom photography, and he served as the darkroom manager for Mary Ellen Mark’s workshops in Oaxaca. He is a recipient of three fellowships from the Oaxaca State Fund for Culture and the Arts, and a Jovenes Creadores fellowship from the Mexican National Fund for Culture and the Arts. Santiago’s photographs have appeared in numerous publications including Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times Lens Blog, PDN Photo of the Day, Deadspin, Cuartoscuro, and the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. Santiago has traveled extensively in Mexico, the United States, and China, and is currently at work on a photo documentary about basketball in the Indigenous villages of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte in Mexico.
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Identity At Play
Featuring: Jorge Santiago
LocationsView Location Details Brooklyn Bridge Park – Pier 2
146 Furman Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
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